First judge of Samoan heritage in state history appointed to the bench

Judge Fa’amomoi Masaniai has often taken the road less traveled.

“I have yet to be sworn in. I have yet to start, but I’m looking forward to bringing a different voice to the table to allow other people to see that perspective,” Masaniai said.

He’s worked as a pro tem judge at numerous courts, including at the Regional Justice Center in Kent.

And now he’s making history. Last month, the King County Council appointed him to fill a judicial vacancy in the District Court last month, making him the first judge of Samoan heritage to serve in Washington state.

“It’s a big honor for our people to have me here. And I’m honored to be here — to represent them. In our culture, it’s Fa’a Samoa, where we built it on respect and honor and love,” added Masaniai.

Active in the Pacific Islander community, Masaniai promises to uphold those principles in his assigned downtown Seattle courtroom.

“I want to adhere to the law. I want my rulings based upon the law. But I also want to take into fact other considerations. Like we don’t know what these people are going through in their lives when they come into the courtroom. All we get is that short glimpse, that 5-10 minutes at the max. I want to hear them. I want to make sure they are heard,” said Masaniai.

He grew up in White Center and attended Evergreen High School, where he also played football.

From there, he went on to Washington State University and walked on to the football team. But he almost didn’t graduate when he slacked on his school work. With help from his coaches, he buckled down and graduated in 1992.

It was then his father said something he never forgot.

“He said, ‘Son, while you were standing there, receiving, taking that picture, you looked like a judge in that robe,’” Masaniai said.

Masaniai started as a volunteer at Tukwila Municipal Court and worked his way up to court clerk and bailiff.

“As I sat there, I asked a hundred questions all the time. I’d go back into the judge’s chambers and asked the judge, ‘Why were they doing this? What was this about?’” he said.

The judge encouraged him to go to law school. But he was rejected from the University of Washington and placed on the waiting list twice at Seattle University.

Court commissioner at the time, Scott Stewart, suggested the Rule 6 Law Clerk Program. It’s an alternative to law school — a four-year work/study apprenticeship program with an experienced lawyer or judge.

“The amount of work I did was nothing compared to the amount of work that Moi did,” Stewart said.

For Stewart, a current judge at Issaquah Municipal Court, Masaniai was the first person he took under his wing. Masaniai worked as a paralegal in Stewart’s law firm during the program and was hired as an attorney after he passed the bar exam.

“He’s intelligent, empathetic, a really smart guy and, frankly, my firm benefited from having Moi at the firm. But more than, it’s an opportunity to help somebody and watch somebody grow. Moi’s an impressive individual,” added Stewart.

Masaniai has a unique perspective, having been a defense attorney and a prosecutor. In American Samoa, he was appointed to prosecute human trafficking, immigration and public corruption.

“So when they come before me, and I understand where they’re coming from, it makes it easier for me to relate to them. It makes it easier for me to identify what’s going on and trying to put me in a position to see if I’m able to help them under the law,” said Masaniai.

He’s married with three children. He hopes his story of perseverance serves as an example to hischildren and others — even when it appears the deck is stacked against them.

“I hope it inspires them to make a goal. I hope they see that, ‘Hey, this kid from White Center did it. I can do it,’” Masaniai said. “Don’t give up. Life is full of roadblocks. And you’re going to be told no. But there’s always ways around it.”

Always ways around — while also honoring those who paved the way on his road less traveled.